Saturday, September 27, 2008

Show Not Tell

As a new fantasy writer, I stared at the critique. My mentor's words struck me. Show this. I thought I was showing. What did she mean? As writers, it's important to know the difference between showing and telling. Today, as an author and editor, I regularly meet writers who confuse the issue. In this article, I present a quick checklist to activate your writing, moving it from passive telling to active showing. Use this list to test your manuscript and eliminate passive telling language.

Emotional Expression:

Show emotion. Whether it's a flushed face, or a slammed car door, body language and facial expressions show emotion. Passive language tells the reader what to think.

Tell: "I'm not putting up with it," he said angrily.

Show: He slammed his fist against the table. "I'm not putting up with it."

Avoid the use of modifiers like the word angrily that tell the reader what to think. Even the use of a word like hissed in the speech tag modify the dialog by telling the reader how it is said. Instead, use strong verbs or beats to show the reader the emotion.

Descriptions For Character and Setting:

Have you blended character description a little at a time like an ingredient to a favorite recipe? Or, have you heaped a load of description in one paragraph and created a lump of facts clumped in one place. Consider how you learn about things in life. If a person walks in a room, do you think: That woman wearing the green dress has eyes that match and long blond hair falling across her shoulders. She walks like a gazelle and everyone in the rooms seems to notice her.

No, that's not how we process information. When you add character and scenic description, too many details added at one time bog the story down and tend to tell rather than show like the example above. Description dumps do not follow the way we perceive information.

Readers want a forward moving tempo. Keep the pace active with verbiage that lures them to wonder what happens next. Incorporate detail naturally within the story. Notice the difference:

The woman's green dress shimmered under low canister lighting. She slipped through the crowded room with the grace of a gazelle and stopped at the rich mahogany desk. Her blond hair draped across her shoulders as she flipped her head, turned and looked at me. Her eyes reflected the color of her dress. I smiled. Everyone in the room stopped.

Telling description stops the action. Showing the description makes it part of the natural flow. Include description in dialog and action to make it real.

Dumping Background Information:

Much like heaping description in large portions, writers may be tempted to use dialog to include large doses of information and facts they want the reader to know. Do this sparingly. If details don't have relevance within the context of the conversation these facts tell the reader information that should be gleaned in a more natural way. When dialog becomes an unnatural information dump, it stops the action and the reader loses the feel of an exchange between characters. It removes the reader from the scene, and becomes an explanation of what the author wants the reader to know.

Long character speeches used to show off hours of research (including interesting facts) need to flow unpretentiously. If piles of content do nothing to move the story along, it's time to cut it.

Repeating What the Character Knows

Search dialog for repeated information. Sometimes in an effort to be sure the reader understands what's happening, writers repeat information. Two things need to be considered. First, if you wrote it right the first time, the reader understands. Second, if you repeat it as if the reader didn't understand, you're insulting their ability to grasp the details.

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